I am Hubris the Great, and if I have not yet proven to my readers that my neural network is capable of making more connections than a glad-handing politician with perfect teeth and no inner compass, then allow me to follow up on what I said to Toc the other night about him being the apotheosis of Mankind. I had mentioned to him how agriculture is what truly hastened our ascent out of the Kingdom Animalia. The next morning, while my beloved Virago snored with all the ferocity of an alligator attacking, as easy prey, a Florida retiree named Maury Cohen, I thought of various plants that have influenced human development. My unrivaled knowledge of biology, history, literature and pop culture was drawn on to elucidate five such plants. Here they are:
Peyote: Lophophora williamsii
Before Nancy Reagan scolded us to say no to drugs, many civilizations over the last two or three millennia have said yes to drugs in the form of plant-derived hallucinogens. Marijuana was referred to by the ancient Chinese as “The Liberator of Sin,” and by the Hindus as “The Heavenly Guide.” The Indians of Mexico worshipped hallucinogenic mushrooms, calling them “Flesh of the Gods.” What would she say to a culture that still looks to hallucinogens for salvation? What would she say about the Native American Church?
Peyote comes from the cactus Lophophora williamsii. It contains the compound mescaline, which induces hallucination in the human brain. The Native American Church was founded in 1918. It now has 225,000 members, and uses Peyote in ceremonial rites. The church espouses brotherly love, which may be enhanced with a little help from our mescal-based friend, or at least that might be the biased view of an American living outside this insulated world.
Movies have often influenced our perception that American Indians are a bunch of acid-heads. In the movie, Billy Jack, the main character takes Peyote and then wanders the desert seeing things that help along the imaginary path to enlightenment. In Young Guns, Billy the Kid and his posse consume Peyote and then walk through a crowd of hostile Indians, who let them pass because they believe that the posse is in the spirit world when all they are really doing is tripping their ass off. In The Doors, Jim Morrison travels to the desert among the Indians to reach a transcendent state with the aid of Peyote….Furthermore, what average American does not mock the Beat poets, who grooved, like, to the Peyote-taking Native American culture as a way, man, to resist the evil Moloch, the god of industrial capitalism according the Ginsberg.
Wheat: Triticum L.
The answer to what plant has had the most significant impact on the way we live has to be the most obvious, the most un-original: Wheat. I wrote in my introduction that nothing has changed the human lifestyle more than agriculture, and wheat was the first planned food source. Wheat enabled us to stay in one place and cultivate not only the land but our intellects, too. We began to look at and question our existence because wheat gave us a break from the constant ordeal of chasing subsistence. We began the written word because wheat led to the need to organize and document agricultural records. We began to construct elaborate religions because our dependence on the annual wheat crop was at the mercy of weather patterns. We began to make note of the ideal of beauty through art because wheat permitted this luxury.
Wheat is now grown around the world. It may sound boring when the word stands by itself, but many delectable dishes are based on wheat. Examples are various breads, biscuits, cakes, Wheaties and other breakfast cereals, pasta and noodles. Now our leisure time has expanded to TV, movies and video games.
Roses: Rosa L.
The rose may have certain practical uses, like converting rose hips to rose water for Vitamin C ingestion, or how the species, Rosa chinensis, was used as Chinese Traditional Medicine; or it may have semi-practical uses, like rose oil being applied as perfume to mask the stench of the human animal; but the rose has impacted the way we live more as a symbol of beauty.
In 500 BC, the Persians and Chinese cultivated roses to prettify gardens. Empress Josephine supported the breeding of roses if for no other reason than to, as Voltaire would say, cultivate France’s garden. This practice has lasted to this day – and all for the human idea of Beauty.
Today, there is no flower more important in saving the male ego while soothing the female ego than the red rose; no better way to beautify one’s garden. Roses have influenced art (Redoute, Monet and Renoir); literary quotation (What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet); bad poetry (A rose is a rose is a rose); historical conflicts (The War of the Roses); rock bands (Guns and Roses); and names of literary trilogies (The Rosy Crucifixion) – Henry Miller’s way of saying “Beautiful Martydom.” A rose inserted into the hair of a woman will transform her from average to alluring – or in the case of my Virago, from a stunning beauty to a woman so beautiful as to blind any man daring to settle his mortal eyes on her for more than ten seconds.
Pineapple: Ananas comosus
One usually does not associate government overthrow with the pineapple, but the fact is that Hawaiian self-government ended in 1893 not because of gold, silver or diamonds but rather over a giant fruit. But what a nutritious fruit, with its 15% sugar, its malic and citric acid, its vitamins B1, B2, B6 and C, and, most unique of all, an enzyme called bromelain that digests other proteins after a hearty meal.
Pineapple was originally cultivated by native Brazilians. Its growth reached the Caribbean – and it was there that Columbus “discovered” it and brought it back to Europe. White capitalists made pineapple plantations in the Philippines, thereby disrupting that country, before totally introducing its growth in Hawaii in the early 1800s. American-run plantations brought in Japanese laborers that, in the end, changed the genetic and political makeup of the islands. This American intrusion upset the native royal government, so the American, in 1893, toppled it and, in 1898, annexed it as an American territory. Now the coast was clear for the Dole Company, in 1901, to use the islands to mass-produce the pineapple on an epic scale. In 1959, Hawaii became an American state – and it all because once greedy and pushy people wanted to make money growing pineapple.
Potato: Solanum tuberosum
The potato may seem like a harmless ovoid piece of sustenance but it was at the heart of keeping the Irish population in peonage in the early nineteenth century and then eliminating 25% of the same population circa 1845. Of course, the potato itself was not a sentient cause of this upheaval but rather the end result of the conflict between English landowners in Ireland and the Irish laborers. The English were an invasive species in Ireland and used the land as a mere money-making source, regardless of how their ambition affected the native species. The potato had been introduced into Ireland in the late 1700s as a supplementary food. The best agricultural land was converted to pastures to raise cattle for export to England until little land was left to raise a variety of good crops. This did not bother the landowners because they lived in England and ate well from their Irish proceeds. However, it forced the natives to farm on the worst soil, and the potato was a plant that was able to persist in less than favorable conditions. Thus the potato graduated to the primary food of the Irish laborer – that is, Ireland agriculture became a monoculture.
The potato is rich in starch but not in protein. This made for an inadequate diet for the native laborer. Then came the blight, Phytophthora infestens, that wiped out the monocultural potato crop in 1845. This led to aforementioned 25% reduction of the native population, and also to the English landowners evicting millions of Irish renters, to the English being even more callous when they tried to prevent the Ottomans from delivering three ship-loads of food to the starving masses. In the end, millions of those who somehow survived immigrated to America, which led to another source of social conflict in this country in the form of racism.
And there you have it, my loyal subjects. Now go and sin no more!